Scavengers, The Unsung Heroes Of Recycling by Benedict Mncube

Do you recycle? While most of us are consumers, and the idea of recycling does not concern us like it does Environmentalists. We are aware of initiatives promoting recycling, especially in the office environment. We are familiar with the Mondi recycling container, in which one discards used white paper, or metals cans separately, for recycling. We ideally should practice the same at home. Some neighbourhoods distribute a different coloured waste bag used for separating recycled waste, and while Municipalities are assisting us in practicing recycling. This initiative is not producing effective results.

Acknowledgement is not given to those who actively participate in recycling, and those who try to make a difference in the world. These are people whom you pass on the street on a daily basis. Perhaps these people hinder your path pushing shopping trolleys collecting recyclable waste. You might even almost run them over if they get in your way, as they wander along collecting waste. You judge them by the clothes they wear and label them vagabonds or homeless. They are dressed dirtily according to you, and you wind up your window as you drive past them. Yet, it all starts with these people. Environmentalists call them “Scavengers, waste-pickers, binners, or informal resource recoverers. By definition they are: person(s) who picks out recyclable elements from the mixed waste wherever it may be temporarily accessible or disposed of; a person who scavenges for junk, and food materials.

Scavenging has become a widespread activity among the poor within South Africa’s cities especially in Johannesburg suburbia and townships. They frequent neighbourhoods sorting rubbish bins, searching for plastics or metals, which they exchange for money at recycling companies. Residents in suburbia get agitated and frustrated seeing these people go through the rubbish and assume that a mess is going to be made but simple communication, in a humane manner, is all it takes to understand that these are people only trying to make a living just like the rest of us. If you don’t want them to tamper with your bin, simply ask them politely not to.

These people form the primary sorters of rubbish. They even work in landfills, which make for cheap labour. According to Treevolution, the recovery rates for various materials are as follows:

Cans: 67.5 percent

Paper: 50 – 52 percent

Glass: 21 – 30 percent

Plastic: About 17 percent

Informal recyclers recover the bulk of this material from dustbins and landfill sites. Scavenging is not the most ideal way of life in terms of health and safety for the informal recyclers, due to recyclable material being exposed to contamination and other waste. They work amongst broken glass, sharp objects and other toxic material during their sorting and collection process. Scavenging may not be the best means of making a living however these people depend on it for their survival. It is important for us to understand that these people contribute to the wellness of our environment. Their efforts have an impact on global recycling as we currently do not have functioning recycling programmes in effect. The hope is that people as a community take the initiative to respect their environment and learn to clean up after themselves and recycle. We can’t allow the goodwill of others to clean up after ourselves and be content with that. What will we teach our children? The onus is on us to keep our planet environmentally friendly for the future of our children.

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